Occasionally as I’m researching, writing, or compiling subject matter for JGIG, a new doctrinal blip will appear on my radar screen. The latest blip? That Torah and not the Gospel is considered to be the indisputable matters spoken of by Paul in Romans 14 in Law-keeping doctrine. Knowing what I now know about the belief system that is the Hebrew Roots Movement (and other Law-keeping sects), it does make perfect sense that within the parameters of that belief system, once again, they put the Mosaic Law in a doctrinal place where the Law of Christ rightfully belongs.
This doctrinal blip appeared on the mom’s forum I subscribe to, stemming from a discussion concerning clean/unclean foods (there are several families on the mom’s forum that are Torah observant, including adherence to the dietary laws). As I’ve done some more research about this Torah-rather-than-the-Gospel being the indisputable matters spoken of in Romans 14, it’s become clear that the concept is not uncommon among several facets in the Law-keeping community, including but not limited to those in the Hebrew Roots Movement, “Messianics”, Seventh Day Adventism, and Church of God sects.
I’ve written this before, but for the benefit of new readers, I want to make clear that my purpose with writing this is not to put down those who have chosen to keep Torah. Most who have chosen to do so have sincere hearts and truly do want to please God because they love Him. They have received false teaching that is very persuasive and deceptive – even seductive, because it is labeled as “hidden”, “forgotten”, “lost” or “previously mis-translated” truth. They have been subjected to a progressive chipping away of sound doctrines, having had them replaced with distorted doctrines.
Back to Romans 14. The whole thing started on the mom’s forum with someone posting about the ins and outs of raising rabbits for food and that led to the Law-keeping moms pointing out the dietary restrictions mandated by Torah and whether or not one should even be eating rabbits (or any other meat considered unclean by Mosaic Law standards). Then one mom stated that the “indisputable matters” referred to in Romans 14 were the dietary laws found in Torah – the Law of God.
Her premise was that since, in the context of Romans 13, we are called to live in the Spirit and not in the flesh, that we are to “not make provision for the flesh and fulfill the lusts thereof.” The premise continues that the weaker in the faith spoken of in Romans 14 are those who have not come to an understanding of Torah and adherence to the Law - and, in this case specifically, the dietary laws found in Torah.
The concept of disputable/indisputable matters therefore breaks down like this in the Law-keeping paradigm: Disputable matters of the faith have to do with the traditions of men, rooted in man-made opinions – things that can be debated. Indisputable matters are the points of the Law, specifically in this case whether or not to eat unclean meats (not considered to be defined as “food” and even classified as abominations in Scripture according to the Law). In other words, eating unclean meats, not to be considered as food, was prohibited by the Law, and therefore was not a “disputable” matter. She went on to assert that consuming “food” (which in her definition would mean only “clean meats”) sacrificed to idols was a disputable matter, since the food in question would have been clean meats (they had to be in this view or they would not have been referred to as “food”). I guess in that view the pagans kept track of which meats they properly slaughtered and prepared according to the Laws of Israel and labeled them as such! How considerate of them!
Other indisputable matters (again, in her view) according to the Law include the 7th day Sabbath and the observance of the Feasts, which she contends are indisputable matters as they were at the time of Christ and Paul. According to her premise, the disputable matters of the day were what days to fast or special prayer days, citing extra-biblical historical records to prove her point, though no references for those sources were given.
She wrapped up her post saying that the indisputable things are found in the Old Testament, that being the Law. That we, even as Spirit-filled believers cannot determine what is right or wrong apart from the repeated instruction of the Law. Perhaps in her view not “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Though the concept of the points of the Gospel being the indisputable matters never did come up in her interpretation of Romans 14, she did at least mention Jesus, in the context that He walked out the Law perfectly as an example for us to follow. The Law, however, remains central to her belief system, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And there is NEVER a mention of a New Covenant. The Law Keeper’s central core is always the Law. Christ, in their belief system is secondary (at best), not primary.
Does the above sound a bit confusing and twisted? I thought so too, and felt a look at Romans 14 through the lens of the Gospel was in order. Following is my post responding to the “Law mom’s” post [edited, reorganized, and expanded slightly for this venue].
Setting Up the Context of Romans 14
In the book of Romans, Paul is talking to the fledgling Church, the Body of Christ. The Gospel came first to the Jew – those who were accustomed to keeping the Law, then to the Gentile – those not accustomed to keeping the Law (Romans 1:16). So on a practical level, there were people who were Jewish, people who were Gentiles, people who were pagan – ALL coming to New Life in Christ. ALL were new believers in the completed work of Christ. They ALL were bringing their backgrounds with them, and Paul recognizes and addresses this in Romans 14, setting up a foundation of the Law of Love in Romans 13 before delving into the religious and cultural soup that is the early (us, too!) Church (Body of Christ).
To the Jews (primarily but not exclusively), Paul addresses in his letters the surpassing glory of the New Covenant in comparison to the Old Covenant in 2 Corinthians 3:4-18 as does the writer of Hebrews in chapters 8-10. To the Gentiles (again, primarily but not exclusively – remember we are one new man in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female – Galatians 3:28), the Epistles are packed full of practical instruction about how we in the Body of Christ are to live.
There is no mistaking in the New Covenant (New Testament) Scriptures that paganism and worldliness are to be put away and that believers are to walk in righteousness and maturity in Christ. Ephesians 4:14-32 and Colossians 3 are just two passages that deal with the Church at large about how Gentiles (indeed how all in the Body of Christ) are to behave as believers.
Romans 14, however, deals with the practicalities of things like eating food and observing days of worship and issues of tradition – all issues bubbling up as the Gospel reached across cultural and religious boundaries – people brought together as new believers in Christ, one new man, the Church, the Body of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22). People who would NEVER have thought to cross paths before Christ were now fellowshipping together in Christ. ALL of these believers were learning to become mature in the Law of Love, no matter their background. This was the day-to-day reality for the Church at Rome into which Paul forged with his letter, our present-day book of Romans.
[As I relayed above, the "Law mom" wrote that the indisputable matters were issues of the Law. The following is a refutation of that idea.]
Indisputable Matters: Torah or the Gospel?
The “Law-keeping” interpretation of Romans 14 is an interesting one. I re-read Romans 13 and 14 just now and find the flavor (since we’re talking partly about food, here) of the text, comparing it to what you wrote, to be different than what you described. [Responding to the "Law mom".]
Let’s start with Romans 13 as you [the Law-mom] suggested - to set up the context. Verses 1-7 instruct believers in submitting to the governmental authorities which God has allowed to rule over them – also there are some basic civil instructions for believers.
Romans 13:8-10 are a reinforcement of Jesus’ second of two commandments (in which He summed up the whole Law – Luke 10:25-37) saying “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10). I find that especially interesting in relation to the Law, because Paul does list in verse 9 “‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet’ and whatever other commandment there may be . . .”
If Paul were gearing up to make the Law the central basis for the indisputable matters spoken of in Romans 14, wouldn’t it make sense to reinforce the Mosaic Law here? Instead, what does Paul do? He expressly sets aside the particulars of the Law and goes straight to the Law of Love, which is the New Covenant, the Law of Christ. Again, from Romans 13:10, following the phrase in verse 9, “and whatever other commandment there may be” and “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Romans13:11-14 talks about leaving the old, dead, man that we were outside of Christ behind and instructs “So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” and “Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”
Couple that with what Paul wrote in Romans 7:4-6 – “So, my brothers [clearly speaking to believers], you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, [speaking here of unbelievers] so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, [sin] we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, [resulting in sanctification by the working of the Holy Spirit, not by adherence to the Law] and not in the old way of the written code”. Again, Paul is emphasizing the proper place of the Law in the believer’s life and their position under the New Covenant.
Paul is saying that we, as believers, are to recognize that “we have been released from the law so that we serve in a new way of the Spirit, And not in the old way of the written code.” We don’t have to go through life checking off the boxes of the Law – we’re free from that as believers. As for the the sins outlined by the Law, it’s not the written code that convicts believers of wrongdoing, it’s the conviction of the Holy Spirit. He brings to us the things that we need to get rid of (sin), not the things that we don’t. He doesn’t even bring them up – it’s not necessary. As a very basic example, if you tell me to not think “pink”, that’s something I’m now thinking about. Some term that as the Law “stirring up sin”. By repeatedly focusing on the specifics of the Law, one is exposed to things he/she may never think of doing as a believer. Our focus as believers is not to be the Law, it is to be on Jesus Christ!
It really is very clear.
Romans 7:7-13: “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”
Now back to Romans 13:14: “Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Which is what happens when one puts on the Law in place of the Gospel!
Romans 13:14 is not saying to put on the Law – it is saying to put on the Lord Jesus Christ - an important distinction to make here before addressing the “Law mom’s” view of Romans 14.
In view of clothing ourselves in Jesus Christ, rather than the Law, let’s now look at Romans 14:
Verses 1-4: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Did anyone see where “eat everything” in these verses was broken down in to clean or unclean meats, food or “non” food?
Based on the context that Romans 13 and the rest of the letter to the Church at Rome provides, operating within the framework of the Law of Moses – that *was* one of several disputable matters. The core issues of the Gospel – The perfect life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ and what that meant – those were the indisputable matters. “Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” – that was the New Covenant – the Law of Love – that was indisputable. And that was what Paul was exhorting believers in Rome to do!
For the Jew, the Law was part of their heritage and birthright. Not keeping the Sabbath or eating anything which to them was unclean under the Old Covenant was completely and utterly unthinkable. For the Gentile or former Pagan, submitting themselves to the Law of Moses given to Israel was, in light of their culture and the New Covenant, equally unthinkable. [There was another issue kicking around in this arena - that of former Pagans not wanting to have anything to do with food sacrificed to idols. I do recognize that, and believe that the principles that Paul lays out here covers that issue as well, though that is not the issue being dealt with in this post specifically.]
Jewish and Gentile believers alike with a thorough understanding of the New Covenant did not concern themselves with the specifics of keeping the Law of Moses. The Law of Christ, the Law of Love, the New Covenant, was now their concern. Was it okay for both Jew and Gentile to walk in their respective heritages and traditions?
Romans 14 verses 5-8 gives us the answer: “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
Continuing in verses 9-12, “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:
‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
Paul places the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ in their proper contexts in verses 12-18: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.”
Interestingly, Paul repeats the New Covenant view of the issue at hand here regarding clean/unclean foods in verses 19-21: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.”
Take note that Paul does not differentiate between Jewish food and Gentile food. He says “All food is clean”. Twice.
Try as one might, the “Law-keeping” interpretation espoused above is just not there, on a number of levels, food being one of them. While Paul, being Hebrew, likely was thinking like a Hebrew, he was thinking like a Hebrew under the New Covenant.
Not only that, but Paul knew his audience. Read the passage again. Paul is known for his “get right to the point” ability and his audience was made up of both Jews and Gentiles. If his audience were only Jewish, Law-keepers might have a case, as the definition of food could be assumed. Being that the audience was made up of Jews and Gentiles, Paul would have, in deference to his combined audience, clearly defined what was considered food and what was not for the benefit of the Gentiles also being addressed if that were truly the issue. He does not do that because food is not the underlying issue.
So how did verses 9-21 flesh out for the Church at Rome on a practical level?
If Fred Gentile Christian invites Joe Jewish Christian over for supper, don’t serve him something he would consider unclean, if that’s something Joe considers important to his faith. Joe Jewish Christian, if your brother Fred serves you something in ignorance of your heritage or tradition you consider to be unclean, lighten up.
Does Paul say to eat up? No, but he does say that you could, because “As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself” and repeats for emphasis that “All food is clean”. If Brother Fred and Brother Joe are both on the same page where the Law of Love is concerned, Brother Joe will not be offended with what was served to him in ignorance and Brother Fred will not be offended if Brother Joe just cannot bring himself to partake and as a loving host will provide some more acceptable fare. Paul exhorts, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”
And grace is extended to those who are weaker in their faith, but they are also instructed in Romans 14 verses 22-23: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
God allows that for some, eating this food or observing that day or celebrating a particular holiday, or on the flip side, not doing any one or all of those things, for them, it would be sin. If they have doubts, and do (or do not do) those things, for them it is sin, and they should not do (or do) those things. Does that mean that those things are sin for everybody? No. The deeper the understanding of the New Covenant and the freedom we have in Christ, the less important edicts become and the more important the Law of Love becomes as with the “Fred” and “Joe” scenario above.
Grasping hold of the New Covenant was (is) vital for the Body of Christ – for them (us) to understand on a fundamental level – it goes to the very basic functions of relationships and unity in the Body of Christ.
The Freedom to Evangelize World/Culture – Wide
Beyond that, if the Body of Christ is to obey the commandment of Christ to “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you [The Law of Christ, not the Law of Moses]. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20), the application of Romans 14 frees the believer to obey the Great Commission.
For the Jewish Christian, if they were indeed still under the Law of Moses, the Great Commission would be an especially challenging thing for them to obey. Take just one example – that of observing the feasts that require attendance in Jerusalem 3 times per year. For the Jewish Christian, taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth – without modern modes of transportation available in those days and for centuries to come – it’s obvious that travel to Jerusalem would have been an impossibility. At the very least, that part of the Law of Moses was passing away for the Jewish Christian obeying the Great Commission.
Equally challenging in delivering the Gospel to the ends of the earth would be the issue of clean/unclean foods. The Jewish Christian needed to recognize that the laws regarding unclean meats and other edicts designed to set Israel apart from the world around them were because the Law of Moses was given to the nation of Israel to separate them from the world. Here was Jesus, telling believers to go out into the world . . . to preach the Gospel to them! A much different command than Israel was used to hearing!
If Joe Jewish Christian was called and went out in obedience to spread the Gospel to the Nations, he would at times necessarily have to give up his *right* to eat within the boundaries of his heritage and traditions. I do not say according to the Law of Moses there, because if Joe is a Jewish believer in Christ he is positionally under the New Covenant, the Law of Christ – he is no longer bound by the Law of Moses.
It is likely to be the more mature believer, Jew or Gentile, who will set aside their wills, rights, traditions, heritages, and birthrights, to go out into all the world anyway. Can you imagine a missionary whipping out his Clean/Unclean Foods chart to an unreached people group when all they really need to hear about is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the freedom from sin that He brings? There are people on this earth that don’t even know what a sheep is! What bread is . . . and who may have limited food sources consisting of “unclean” things according to Mosaic Law. God is concerned whether or not the peoples of the earth are redeemed, not whether or not they’re eating shellfish or snails!
[I want to interject something here that this particular "Law mom" and I discussed off-forum regarding the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ as they pertain to the Great Commission. She tried to show me that the Law could not be "set aside" for the sake of ministering in different cultures. She gave two examples:
1) What if the missionary was asked to commit adultery instead of eat something unclean?
My response: They would say no, because it is not the most loving thing to do. Covered under the Law of Love.
2) What if the missionary were asked to sacrifice their children to the god of the unreached people group?
My response: Again they would of course say no. Murdering a child for sacrifice to a false god would not be the most loving thing to do. Again, covered under the Law of Love. What an incredible, wonderful, open door to minister the Gospel to people, telling them that they don't have to sacrifice their children . . . To be able to tell them (especially the parents!) that the true God is a God of mercy and grace and compassion and that He provided One Sacrifice for all? What amazing news! What good news! It's the Gospel!
These issues are addressed in a superior way by the Law of Christ, the Law of Love, The New Covenant. The Mosaic Law was given to the people of Israel as part of a covenant. The rest of mankind was never to be put under the Law of Moses. There's a really interesting article I came across on this very issue about translation of the Sabbath (for the purpose of Sabbath-keeping - an integral part of Law keeping) and the challenges that posed for one missionary who was serving an unreached people group. You can read that article HERE.
The Gospel, the New Covenant, can go anywhere, into any culture, and be understood by anyone!
She also chided me for "equating" the Law with tradition and heritage.
My response: I didn't. I did not equate heritage and traditions with the Law. Certain edicts of the Law, such as feast and sabbath keeping and dietary laws become a matter of personal preference under the New Covenant. It in no way diminishes the significance of those things in a Jewish believer's life, should he/she choose to continue in them, but they are no longer required of them under the New Covenant. The purpose of the Law to show us our sin and our need for a Saviour translates into all cultures very well . . . but the edicts of the Law - the parts that set Israel apart - those don't and were for Israel AND they were for a season.]
Romans 14 is such a love letter to believers, because God gets us. He gets our tendency to hold onto that which is is old and familiar. He gets that we feel like we have to do something to be good enough before Him. Yet He firmly reinforces the Gospel and gently instructs us to love one another, spurring us on to operate in the Fruits of the Spirit, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.” (vs. 17-18)
Two believers of opposing views on secondary disputable matters in reality view the other as the weaker brother. In which case we are to show deference to one another. If some are more focused on their “pet theology” than on the Gospel and loving God and their neighbor, then there’s a problem. The design of the Body of Christ as God has set it up is one of necessary differences, (talents and giftings), rooted and grounded in Christ, with the underlying framework being love (1 Corinthians 12-14). If we’re operating within the parameters of that design, Romans 14 is easy.
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